Can the GOP Win Back the House?

The Democrats hold 258 U.S. House seats, the Republicans 177. In the last two cycles (2006 and 2008), the Democrats gained a net 55 House seats. To win back control in 2010, the GOP will need to pick up a net 41 seats. Can they do it?

It is likely that the GOP will lose some seats in the 2010 races. Even in the GOP sweep in 1994, when the party picked up a net 54 seats, Democrats won 4 GOP-held seats. The single most vulnerable Republican-held seat (in reality, the single most vulnerable seat for either party) is that of Joseph Cao in Louisiana-2, a district Barack Obama carried by 75%-23% in 2008 and where African-Americans make up 60% of the residents. The GOP will be hard-pressed to defend three open seats: Delaware's (Mike Castle), Illinois-10's (Mark Kirk), and Pennsylvania-6's (Jim Gerlach's). Obama won Delaware by 25%, Illinois-10 by 23%, and Pennsylvania-6 by 17%. Several Republican incumbents had tough races in 2008 and could face solid challenges again next year. Dave Reichert in Washington-8 and Ken Calvert in California-44 are two of a small number of such potentially vulnerable incumbents.

The reality is that the Democrats won most of the races they targeted in the last two cycles and in both 2006 and 2008. They had a target-rich environment. However, they have many fewer opportunities in 2010. Now, with sharply declining approval ratings for the president, increasing public unease about one-party rule, the Democrats' broad expansion of the federal government's role in many areas (the health care bill and the cap-and-trade legislation are particularly unpopular), high unemployment, and the growing annual deficit and accumulated federal debt, the Republicans are poised for a comeback. The question is not whether the GOP will pick seats in 2010, but how many.

For the GOP to win back control of the House, they will likely need to pick up at least 45 Democrat-held seats to account for a few lost seats of their own. That is no small order. But eleven months out, it is easy to identify enough vulnerable incumbents or open Democratic held seats for a GOP House takeover to be possible, if not yet classifiable as likely.   

To come up with my target list, I identified vulnerable Democrat-held seats in four categories:

1) open seats;  

2) Democrats first elected in 2008;

3) Democrats first elected in 2006; and

4) other vulnerable Democrats in Republican-leaning  or tossup districts (based on votes for president in 2004 and 2008 and how competitive the last House race was in these districts). 

Conventional wisdom borne out by recent House elections is that open seats offer the best opportunity for a pickup. Congressmen who have picked up a seat for their party (and are thus running for reelection for the first time) are also highly vulnerable. Given the strength of the Democratic waves in both 2006 and 2008 and the shift away from the Democrats that seems to have occurred in the last year, the 2010 races could be particularly challenging for Democrats elected in either of the last two cycles. The recent governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia suggest a dramatic shift in the political momentum between the two parties since 2008. President Obama won Virginia by almost 7% and New Jersey by almost 16%. The GOP won the two governors races in 2009 by 17% and 4%, a shift of 24% and 20%, respectively, in the margins in these states in one year.

Open Seats

Six open Democrat-held seats offer very good opportunities for the GOP. These are Kansas-3 (Moore), Louisiana-3 (Melancon), New Hampshire-2 (Hodes), Pennsylvania-7 (Sestak),  Tennessee-8 (Tanner), and Washington-3 (Baird). John McCain won Louisiana-3 and Tennessee-8, and George Bush won both of these districts as well as Kansas-3 and Washington-3. Charles Cook rates Pennsylvania-7 Dem +3, New Hampshire- 2 Dem +3, and Washington-3 even. The other three open seats are Republican-leaning. 

Of the six, Louisiana
-2 is  the most likely pickup, and Pennsylvania-7 is the least likely. But the GOP could win all six if the political environment in November 2010 is like it is now. Three of these seats opened in the last three weeks, and if more Democrats follow these three to the exits, the GOP's chances for a big gain in 2010 will increase.

First-Term Democrats

I have identified 31 vulnerable Democrats from the class of 2008 and from special elections in 2009. George Bush carried 29 of the 31 districts in 2004. 2010 could be a better GOP year than 2004 was. John McCain carried 14 of the districts. Seventeen of the 31 Democrats won by 5% or less in 2008. Charles Cook rates 24 of the 31 districts as leaning Republican. Of the seven Democrat-leaning districts, Cook rates three of them Dem +1, two of them Dem +2, one Dem +3, and one Dem +5.

The 31 vulnerable seats are:

Alabama-2 (Bright), Alabama-5 (Griffith), Arizona-1 (Kirkpatrick), Colorado-4 (Markey), Connecticut-4 (Himes), Florida-8 (Grayson), Florida-24 (Kosmas), Idaho-1 (Minnick), Illinois-14 (Foster), Illinois-11 (Halvorson), Maryland-1 (Kravotil), Michigan-7 (Schauer), Michigan-9 (Peters), Mississippi-1 (Childers), North Carolina-8 (Kissell), New Jersey-1 (Adler), New York-25 (Maffei), New York-29 (Massa), New York-13 (McMahon), New York-20 (Murphy), New York-23 (Owens), Nevada-3 (Titus), New Mexico-2 (Teague), Ohio-16 (Bocccieri), Ohio-1 (Driehaus), Ohio-15 (Kilroy), Oregon-5 (Schrader), Pennsylvania-3 (Dahlkemper), Virginia-11 (Connolly), Virginia-5 (Perriello), and Virginia-2 (Nye).   

Of the group, Illinois-11, New York-13, Connecticut-4, and Oregon-5 are likely to be more challenging for the GOP than many of the others. Many of the seats in this category (as well as the category below) will be more or less competitive depending on the strength of the GOP candidates at the top of the ticket in senate and governor's races. If Rudy Giuliani or George Pataki is on the ballot, GOP challengers in the New York districts should do better in 2010 than GOP candidates did in 2006 or 2008. Pat Toomey is currently running ahead in the Senate race in Pennsylvania, and John Kasich leads in the Ohio governor's race.  Republicans lost a net 16 House seats in these three states in the last two cycles, and big gains in them is essential for a chance at recapturing the House.

It is highly unlikely the GOP will win all of the 31 races in this category, or even nearly all of them. But all of them should be competitive. That means the Democrats will be on defense in far more races than those in which they will on offense, and they will need to raise and spend a lot of money to hold some of these seats.

Second-Term Democrats

I have identified 18 vulnerable Democrats of those first elected in 2006. George Bush won 15 of the 17 districts in 2004. John McCain won 8 of the districts in 2008. Charles Cook rates 14 of the districts as Republican-leaning, 3 as Democrat-leaning, and one as even. The three Democrat-leaning districts are Dem +1, Dem +2, and Dem +2. Clearly, in a wave year, incumbents in a virtually 50-50 district can be swept away. One of the 18 Democratic incumbents won by 5% or less in 2008, and five others won by 10% or less. 

The 18 vulnerable seats are:

-8 (Giffords), Arizona-5 (Mitchell), California-11 (Mcnerney), Florida-22 (Klein), Indiana-9 (Hill), Kentucky-3 (Yarmuth),  Minnesota-1 (Walz), New Hampshire-1 (Shea Porter), New York-19 (Hall), New York-24 (Acuri),  North Carolina-11 (Shuler), Ohio-6 (Wilson), Ohio-18 (Space), Pennsylvania-4 (Altmire), Pennsylvania-10 (Carney), Pennsylvania-8 (Murphy), Texas-23 (Rodriguez), and Wisconsin-8 (Kagen). Minnesota-1, Indiana-9, Kentucky-3, North Carolina-11,  Pennsylvania-8, and Arizona-8 will be more uphill fights for the GOP than some of the others. 

Other Vulnerable Democrats in GOP-Leaning or 50-50 Districts

There are several districts that vote with big margins for GOP presidential candidates but keep reelecting their Democratic congressman. These seats are unlikely to turn until the Democratic incumbent retires, though the GOP may mount a more serious challenge to a few of the names on this list for the first time in years in 2010. 

These districts include Utah-2 (Matheson), Tennessee-8 (Gordon), Tennessee-4 (Lincoln Davis), Arkansas-1 (Berry), Arkansas-2 (Snyder), Arkansas-4 (Ross), South Dakota at large (Herseth Sandlin), North Dakota at large (Pomeroy), Pennsylvania-17 (Holder), Kentucky-6 (Chandler), Oklahoma-2 (Boren), South Carolina-5 (Spratt), Mississippi-4 (Taylor), Missouri-4 (Skelton), West Virginia-1 (Mollohan), and West Virginia-3 (Rahall). Seven other, longer-serving Democrats could face tougher tests in 2010. They include  Pennsylvania-11 (Kanjorski), New York-1 (Bishop), Pennsylvania-12 (Murtha), Texas-17 (Edwards), Georgia-8 (Marshall), Virginia-9 (Boucher) and Iowa-3 (Boswell).

In a wave year, there are always a few surprises -- a few incumbents thought to be safe who go down to defeat. That could be the case for several of the members listed above in 2010, as well as others not on any of the target lists.

In total, 62 Democrat-held seats are in one of the four categories (6 open seats, 31 Democrats first elected in 2008, 18 first elected in 2006, and 7 longer-serving incumbents). Winning 45 of these, or near 73% of the contests, will be difficult. A net gain for the GOP of 20-25 seats would be a more conservative forecast at this point, though this range, while lower, is by no means assured.  

Charles Cook has come out with his ratings of vulnerable seats for both parties. He lists 84 Democrat-held seats as lean GOP (1), tossup (15), lean Democratic (23), and likely Democratic (45). Some of these likely Democratic seats can shift during the course of a year depending on whether the GOP finds a good challenger. This list came out before the announcement of the retirement of Brian Baird, which will almost surely move this seat from the likely Democratic to the tossup category. Only 26 Republican-held seats make Cook's list: lean Democrat (1), tossups (3), lean Republican (7), and likely Republican (15). Cook identifies three Democrat-held seats that I did not include in my list of 62 targets as only lean Democrat (hence very competitive): Missouri-4 (Skelton), Arkansas-2 (Snyder), and Tennessee-6 (Gordon). Throw these in the mix, and my list would contain 65 vulnerable Democrat-held seats.

Cook also compiled a list of Democrats who won with under 55% of the vote in 2008. Ohio-15 (Kilroy) and Virginia-5 (Perriello) were undecided at the time the list was completed, and including them, 30 Democrats won with these modest vote percentages in a very strong Democratic year.

If forced to answer my own question, I would say the odds favor the Democrats retaining control of the House. But the Republicans have a shot, maybe 25-33%, of coming out on top. If they manage to accomplish that, almost all of the turnover seats will come from the list in this article.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.